“Did you know,” I asked my ten-year-old son the other day, “that cats can’t taste sweet?”
The acquiring (and, therefore, sharing) of random bits of scientific trivia is one of the occupational hazards of working for a ‘general knowledge’ magazine.
“Cats,” I went on, keen to display my new-found insights into the feline tongue, “have no sweet receptors.”
This was met with a thoughtful silence.
“Then what does it taste like if they eat a jalebi?”
This was an excellent question and quickly led to an existential discussion on the nature of reality. If you can’t taste sweet, then ‘sweetness’ simply does not exist. Do our senses, in other words, act ‘translators’ – receiving information about the external world and putting it into a language that our bodies can understand? Or is the external world created by what we are equipped, physically and physiologically, to receive? And if it’s the latter, what about all the stuff for which we, like the jalebi-munching cat, don’t have the right ‘buds’?
Taste, according to author, naturalist and free-ranging polymath Diane Ackerman, is our most intimate sense. You can see or hear something from a distance, smell it from closer up, touch it with our soft, outer shell, the skin, but in order to taste something you have to bite it, lick it, chew – invite it into your very body. Which is why, down the local pub in London, you might overhear a bloke eyeing an attractive woman and saying “Ooh, she’s a bit tasty.” And hoping that with any luck said female might return the favour by thinking him equally edible: sweet, perhaps, or even a bit of a studmuffin.
But the word ‘taste’ refers not only to one of our five (or more) senses. Etymologically, its roots go back to the Middle English tasten, meaning to examine by touch, to test or to sample, as ‘taster menus’ suggests. It also means ‘preference’. As a child, I’d always assumed the ‘add sugar to taste’ instructions on cereal packets meant that you had to add sugar if you want to taste it at all, and not – as I now realise – add just enough to suit your personal preference. What’s sweet to one is not necessarily sweet enough for another. ‘Chacun à son goût,’ one might shrug, Gallicly, watching a visitor ladle another three heaped teaspoons of sugar into his tea – ‘each to his own taste.’ Or, if the situation demands something less laissez faire, and involves someone else’s boyfriend, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’, usually translated as ‘there’s no accounting for taste.’
We eat things with gusto – from the Latin root gustare, ‘to taste’ – or spit them out if they taste disgusting.
The two were beautifully illustrated in a BBC series called Tribe, in which an intrepid explorer called Bruce Parry travelled to the Amazon rainforest to live with the natives there. At one point, the hunting party came upon a fallen tree, and Parry watched in horrified fascination as his tribal guides gleefully tore off a piece of rotted bark to reveal a writhing mass of fat, inch-long maggots. His friends, their eyes shining with delight at this unexpected feast, offered him a squirming morsel. Which, to his eternal credit, he bit into, chewed and managed to swallow, pantomiming approval to his eager hosts and gagging to the camera off to one side. As they trekked back later, Parry decided to share with them some of the trail-mix that he and the cameraman had brought along for the trip. One of the tribesmen bit into a raisin, and the grimace of utter disgust on this face perfectly mirrored that of Parry’s own response to freshly plucked Amazonian tree maggot. Clearly, what’s grub for one is, well, simply a grub for another.
Our tastes vary of course, from person to person – I know many, for example, who consider karela actually edible – but they are equally strongly culturally defined. The pungent blue-veined cheeses relished by the French and Italians are repulsive to the Indian palate, just as the English find the heavily chilli-ed Tamil dishes impossible to taste at all beyond the incendiary burn. I remember my parents returning several pounds lighter from a trip to Japan, shaking their heads at how anyone can survive, day after day, on sticky rice, seaweed and fish. When we are ill, or homesick, we crave ‘comfort food’ – those dishes that recreate the textures and flavours of our childhood. For some, that might be kichuri, a comforting splodge of dal and rice that comes with a dollop of caring love for someone convalescing. For the wonderfully arrogant food critic, Anton Ego in the Pixar animation film, it is the eponymous dish, rataouille, as cooked by his loving, peasant mother for little Anton when he has scraped his knee falling from his bicycle. For me, it’s ‘spagbog’, the spaghetti Bolognese that my mum used to cook as a special treat for us kids, rich mincemeat sauce doused in a full can of mushy plum tomatoes from Sainsburys.
But frequently, we scarcely taste at all. We munch down toast, grab a coffee, barely notice what’s passing our lips, just as long as we get that fuel into our bodies. To counteract this modern malaise, people are opting for ‘slow food’ – a term coined in deliberate opposition to ‘fast food’. The Slow Food movement was founded by Carlo Petrini who led the (successful) campaign in 1989 to scupper the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Piazza del Spagna in Rome. Beneath its snail logo, the Slow Food manifesto reads: “Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure. Against those – or, rather, the vast majority – who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.” For Petrini, it’s not just a question of making the food we eat healthier and tastier, but much more fundamentally questioning the viability of the modern food industry and its terrible impact on our ecosystems. Looking to the future, he says, “I think it will be a huge achievement if in 50 years humanity even exists. The environmental destruction of our ecosystems is that dramatic.”
Mindfulness is no longer thought of as an esoteric Buddhist meditation but is becoming increasingly recommended (in the UK by the National Health Service) as one of several alternative therapies to treat stress and depression, and their related disorders.
My brother, a yoga teacher based in Taunton, described in wistful detail his experience of attending a mindfulness workshop recently. The teacher had chosen a raisin (and thankfully not a maggot – this was Somerset after all) for the session on mindful eating. It takes a long time, he said, about half an hour per raisin. First, you just hold the raisin in your palm, breathing (mindfully) and contemplating its raisinly qualities: the puckered skin, the size and shape, its brownish purple hue, the withered remnant of stalk with which once the sun-kissed rain-plumped grape had hung from the vine. Then you rub it gently against the lips, feeling the ridges and valleys of its skin against yours as it releases the merest hint of scent to the nostrils, as you contemplate the labour that had gone into tending the vines, turning the soil, picking the bunches, packing, transporting them across the world to you. Then you put it on your tongue – no teeth, not yet – and roll it around the mouth as the saliva begins to break down the molecules, merging its essence with your own. And finally – finally – when you actually bite down on the spit-softened morsel, the taste… well, “it blew me away,” my brother concluded, shaking his head.
Who needs to do drugs when you have kishmish handy? I wondered. But who has the time to really, truly savour our food? Which brings us neatly from the sweet to the salty…
What was life like before salt? That ubiqutious enhancer, without which we would not savour our food, or even taste it properly? No wonder it became such a powerful symbol for Gandhian freedom fighters, for who would deny a man his ‘daily salt’? A tax on this basic ingredient seemed to deny our very humanity. We refer to someone who is decent and kind and good as ‘the salt of the earth’. Interestingly, ‘salt’ in this sense shares its etymological roots with the word ‘salary’, while both ‘taste’ and ‘tax’ have a shared root in the Latin tastare (to test or sample) and taxare (to evaluate or charge for).
Having been brought up in England, it used to befuddle me that the Hindi words for salty and sweet referred not to specific tastes but to entire food-groups. “Kuchh namkeen hai?” I soon realised did not translate as “pass the salt”. I still find it odd that people will say that they either like or dislike “sweets”, as though the entire gamut from silvery diamonds of kaju barfi, sugar-drenched spongy rosogulla that make your teeth squeak, piping hot jalebis oozing syrup, nutty earthern pots of mishti dahi could all be lumped under one, diabetes-inducing umbrella. But this umbrella shrank to the size of a mere cocktail decoration in comparison to another when, in response to the question “what’s your favourite food?” a friend of mine replied, with a heartfelt sigh: “Non-veg.”
‘Taste’ also refers, of course, to a certain refinement, a certain sophistication (something that had clearly passed my non-veg-loving friend by, lightly ruffling his hair). Someone is said to have ‘good taste’ if they are thought to be a fine judge of aesthetic standards – roughly translated, more often than not, as ‘liking the stuff that you do too’.
Remy, the little rodent cordon-bleu chef in Rataouille, is appalled by his garbage-chomping brother Emile’s lack of discernment. “I have got to teach you about food!” he declares. “Close your eyes.” He gives Emile a piece of cheese to taste. At this point, the background fades to black. “Chew it slowly,” he exhorts him, “think only about the taste… see?” In a visual echo of an earlier sequence, when Remy’s taste sensations lead to bursts of colour, swirls of light and symphonic music, Emile’s clumsy palate manages to conjure up a vague grey blob. “Creamy, salty, sweet. An oaky nuttiness? You detect that?” Remy persists. Emile half-opens one eye: “Oh, I’m detecting nuttiness.” Combined with a strawberry’s tart tang, and egged on by Remy’s descriptions, even Emile’s sound and light show begins to swirl and dance – albeit briefly – before collapsing in a heap.
There are any number of films celebrating the taste, texture, smell of food – Chocolat; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Babette’s Feast; Like Water for Chocolate – but they all rely on the facial expressions of the people eating to convey the way food is relished. Rataouille, on the other hand, transcends the literal. Or in the words of Chef Gusteau, Remy’s idol and jovial spirit-guide in the world of haute cuisine: “Good food is like music you can taste, colour you can smell.”
Now, Rataouille is a children’s film, so the whole eating+sex thing is kept to a minimum, but not so in the adult films. The way we use food to seduce – to tantalise and delight – is sweetly portrayed in both the chocolatey films mentioned above. Peter Greenaway has a more macabre interpretation of the old saw ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ His gastronomic tour de force, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, is the visual equivalent of a Roman banquet, so overwhelmingly rich, opulent, decadent it would make Caligula belch. You stagger from the cinema with the overwhelming desire to find the nearest vomitorium and possibly never eat again (let alone have sex). But the prize for the most enthusiastic exploration of the idea goes to the classic 1963 film of Henry Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, with the brilliantly saucy seduction scene between Tom and Mrs Waters over lobster, roast chicken, leg of lamb, hunks of bread, salacious oysters on the half-shell, and some (very juicy) pears.
“We use the mouth for many things – to talk and kiss, as well as to eat,” explains Diane Ackerman. “The lips, tongue, and genitals all have the same neural receptors, called Krause’s end bulbs, which makes them ultrasensitive, highly charged. There’s a similarity of response.” Well, by the end of the meal, Tom and Mrs Waters’ bulbs are positively incandescent. Leaving the table strewn like a battlefield with their gustatory excesses, they drag each other off stage left, heading with indecent haste towards the bedroom.
But food is not just sensually arousing, it is socially cementing, the grouting that holds together the individual bricks of society, you might say. From Timbuktu to Greenland, the Gobi Desert to Manhattan, we tend to eat together. The very word ‘companion’ connotes someone with whom we share our bread (com ‘with’ + panis ‘bread’). Although, in an etymological twist of fate to do with the ancient Persians cooking their bread uncovered, the root for naan (neogw) is also that of ‘naked,’ reminding us that in language, as in life, it’s a short walk from the dining table to the bed.
Every schoolchild at some point has had to draw a diagram of the tongue, with different parts labelled for the different tastes: broadly, the back for bitter, the sides at the back for sour, the sides towards the front for salt and the sweetness… ah, of course, it’s at the tip of my tongue. [There’s also the mysterious ‘umami’ – savouriness – a term coined by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, which, strangely enough for a ‘basic taste’ has never made it into metaphor: You never hear someone say “Oh, did you meet Yuchiko? She’s so umami!” Although, come to think of it, maybe they do in Japanese.] The ‘tongue map’ makes a nice schematic, but never really seemed plausible to me in reality. Scrunch into a gol guppa and the explosion of salty, spicy, sweet, watery, crunchy, tangy deliciousness cannot possibly be isolated on different parts of the tongue. It’s always gratifying to have vague hunches subsequently turn out to be scientifically proven, and now it is accepted that all parts of the tongue can taste salt, sweet, bitter and sour – although the ‘threshold sensitivity’ to these basic flavours varies – very minutely – on different parts of the surface.
All of which goes to remind me of the reaction of an English friend experiencing his first gol guppa “That’s just, um,” he grimaced, probing with his tongue to extricate the interdental morsels of puri, “the most… excitingly… um… digusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” Which, coming from someone of his evangelically liberal erotic tastes, was really saying something.
Butterflies have their taste receptors on their feet. Parrots only have about 400 taste buds; cows over 20,000. Ackerman speculates that perhaps they need that many to enjoy “a relentless diet of grass”. Humans have up to 10,000, mostly on the tongue, but also on the palate, pharynx and tonsils, as well as some – especially in babies and young children – scattered on the cheeks. Our taste buds are replaced throughout our lives – though less frequently after the age of about forty-five: “our palates really do become jaded as we get older,” as Ackerman puts it.
All of which goes to show that language and food are as inextricably twinned as the bananas and toffee of a banoffee pie. And, just to bring us back full circle to the beginning of this etymological and gustatory ramble, I was delighted to find a ‘cat’s tongue’ – or langue de chat, Katzenzunge or lingua de gato, depending on whether you’re French, German or Portuguese – is a small, vanilla-flavoured elongated oval-shaped cookie. Melts in the mouth, and deliciously sweet. Just be thankful you’re not a cat.
Farms, Feasts and Famines, Himal Magazine, April 2013